Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Study in Thai

I recently updated my book, Teach and Learn: Reflections on Communicative Language Teaching, from which this is a chapter, and made it available on Kindle and as an inexpensive paperback. To enjoy a read, please click here.

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Many of the characteristic errors Thais make in English are directly related to interference from their own language and culture. “Contrastive analysis” is the process of understanding learner errors by comparing the make-up of a second language with the learner’s native tongue. In these notes, we make a start.

Thai society is highly stratified, and differences in social status are reflected in Thai grammar. The royal family has its own set of pronouns and word uses, used exclusively by its members and those who work for them. So does the Buddhist establishment. Thus, there are four major “registers” – subsets of language used in particular social settings – in Thai speech. These are royal, ecclesiastical, polite and vernacular.

Besides being stratified, Thailand has brought together diverse groups of people over a very short period of time, and the country’s borders with it neighbours are porous. As a result, Thai is one of many languages spoken in the country. Others include Khmer, along the border with Cambodia, and a variety of Burmese and tribal languages in the north and along the Thai/Myanmar border.

Thais speak four main dialects. The central dialect, which is the official language of Thailand, is spoken in Bangkok and environs. This dialect is known as klang. The other three major dialects are khammauang, spoken in the north; lao, which is used in the northeast, and tâi, which is the southern dialect.

Grammar: Thai is a flexible language which has no prefixes or suffixes, no genders for nouns, no articles, no plurals and no verb conjugations. It is a high-context language, which means it conveys much information through context rather than through linguistic rules.

On the other hand, it has at least 49 pronouns, including at least 17 for “I” and 19 for “you.” The choice of pronoun indicates the gender of the speaker: for instance, põm means “I” for a male; diichán means “I” for a female. The other pronouns indicate the degree of familiarity you have with the person you are addressing, the nature of the conversation (for example, personal or business), and the level of respect you wish to show. Personal pronouns do not change, regardless of their place within a sentence. There are no possessive pronouns in Thai.

To complicate matters further – from an English speaker’s perspective, – Thais will frequently use nouns (including proper nouns) as pronouns. For example, young girls and sometimes even young women use the Thai word for mouse as the personal pronoun “I.” Women especially, but also men, also sometimes use their personal names instead of the pronoun “I”. When talking to or about foreigners, Thais will occasionally substitute faràng (Thai for “foreigner”) for “you, him, her or them.”

Thai uses particles as polite “closing” words, or to indicate degree of familiarity between the speakers. These one-syllable words are always found at the end of a clause or sentence. Since a single sentence may have several clauses, it may also repeat the same particle several times. The most common particles are khâ (used by women) and khráp (used by men.) These particles literally mean “yes” in polite Thai, and can be used scores of times in a single conversation. Particles suggest courtesy and power relationships. Thais will sometimes explain that sentences without particles are “not beautiful.”

The main Thai dialect has five tones. Thai writing therefore requires four tone markers. These tone markers represent the high tone, the low tone, the falling tone and the rising tone. The mid-tone – also called the common tone – does not require a tone marker.

The word order in a simple Thai sentence is subject-verb-direct object. If there is an indirect object, the word order is subject-verb-direct object-indirect object. Adjectives and adverbs follow the word they modify. Numbers precede the noun.

In Thai sentence structure, you don’t use intransitive verbs when you describe Thai nouns. You say “She beautiful,” or “Computer expensive very.” In Thai, these are complete sentences. They do not require a verb.

Thai suggests plurals with the use of noun classifiers, of which there are many. In effect, Thais say “I have pen, four item” rather than “I have four pens.” Parallel structures exist in English, but they are rare – for example, “50 head of cattle.”

Thai/English Phonology: English has many features that cause difficulties for native-speakers of Thai. This summary reviews pronunciation problems that Thai learners frequently have with English pronunciation.

English has six consonant sounds that do not exist in Thai: /v, th (voiced and unvoiced), z, sh, zh/. Also, the Thai /r/ is quite different from the English retroflex /r/, and Thai speakers frequently pronounce this sound as /l/, even in their own language.

For Thais, many consonant clusters are difficult to pronounce. There are several reasons for this. For one, only two consonants maximum are permitted at the beginnings of words in Thai. In addition, there are no consonant clusters in Thai word endings. Only eight consonants – /n, m, ng, pb, dt, g, y, w/ – are allowed to occur in that position.

While English pronunciation is heavily dependent on consonants, Thai pronunciation is heavily dependent on vowels. Thai has many more vowel sounds than English, and in Thai it is important to pronounce vowels distinctly.

In English, the vowels of unstressed syllables in content words and the vowels of function words are generally reduced or even dropped. English speakers often reduce vowels to schwa (the unstressed sound “uh”); this can make them almost inaudible to the Thai ear.

English function words, which are generally unstressed, are often dramatically reduced. English speech is stress-timed rather than syllable-timed.

The Writing System: Thai uses an alphabet related to that of Sanskrit. Most native-English speakers accustomed to the relative simplicity of the Roman alphabet find it difficult to learn. The system is phonetically quite precise, however. There are few irregular spellings, and to native-Thai speakers the rules of composition are quite natural.

The Thai writing system has 44 consonants that represent only 21 distinct sounds. (Two consonants are obsolete and 12 rarely used. A number of consonants are redundant in the sense that they convey the same sound as other consonants. Part of the reason for this redundancy is that consonants are grouped into three groups – high-tone consonants, middle-tone consonants and low-tone consonants. This approach is used to enable the writer to convey tones.

Each consonant has a character name to help when spelling it out loud. For example, the first consonant in the alphabet is gaw-gài. The first syllable suggests the consonant sound, while the second represents a word (in this case gài or “chicken”) with which to associate the letter.

There are 21 vowels, which are used in various combinations to create 32 different vowel sounds – either long or short vowels. While tone markers are consistently placed above the letters of the alphabet, different vowels are placed in front of, above, behind, under or around the consonants.

The following text illustrates the main features of the Thai writing system. In addition to the placement of vowels and tone markers, note that that written Thai uses no punctuation. There are no capital letters. Full stops, question marks and exclamation marks do not end Thai sentences. Neither does the system use the complex Western arrangement of commas, colons, dashes and other characters used in European punctuation. Also, there are no spaces between words except in the case of Arabic numbers, which writers separate from the Thai text.
ในวันที่ 25 พฤษภาคม 2549 ในหลวงได้รับการถวายรางวัลจากองค์การสหประชาติในความสำเร็จทางด้านการพัฒนาความเป็นอยู่ของมนุษยชาติซึ่งนายโคฟีอันนันเลขาธิการสหประชาชาติได้นำมาถวายด้วยตัวเอง
The text refers to the Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award presented to the King by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme. The award was presented on May 25, 2006 (2549 on the Buddhist calendar).

To Sum up: As this brief discussion illustrates, studying the contrasts between Thai and English can shed light on the errors your Thai students make. Enabling teachers to better understand the linguistic features of another language provides insights into the subtleties of language itself. This should help you become better at the job of teaching English.

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